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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Friday, January 28, 2011

History Excerpted
W.E.B. DuBois addresses the second annual meeting of the Niagara Conference at Harper’s Ferry, West Va. (August 16, 1906)

We do not believe in violence, neither in the despised violence of the raid nor the lauded violence of the soldier, nor the barbarous violence of the mob, but we do believe in John Brown, in that incarnate spirit of justice, that hatred of a lie, that willingness to sacrifice money, reputation, and life itself on the altar of right.  And here on the scene of John Brown’s martyrdom, we reconsecrate ourselves, our honor, our property to the final emancipation of the race which John Brown died to make free.

Our enemies, triumphant for the present, are fighting the stars in their courses.  Justice and humanity must prevail.  We live to tell these dark brothers of ours–scattered in counsel, wavering, and weak–that no bribe of money or notoriety, no promise of wealth or fame, is worth the surrender of a people’s manhood or the loss of a man’s self-respect.  We refuse to surrender the leadership of this race to cowards and trucklers.  We are men; we will be treated as men.  On this rock we have planted our banners.  We will never give up, though the trump of doom finds us still fighting. 

". . . we do believe in John Brown, in that incarnate spirit of justice, that hatred of a lie, that willingness to sacrifice money, reputation, and life itself on the altar of right."

And we shall win! The past promised it.  The present foretells it.  Thank God for John Brown.  Thank God for Garrison and Douglass, Sumner and Phillips, Nat Turner and Robert Gould Shaw, and all the hallowed dead who died for freedom.  Thank God for all those today, few though their voices be, who have not forgotten the divine brotherhood of all men, white and black, rich and poor, fortunate and unfortunate.

Monday, January 24, 2011

John Brown Still Lives in Kansas Memory

Lecompton, Kan. January 24, 2011 (AP)

One-hundred and fifty years ago, the nation was on the verge of the Civil War and transfixed by the bloody fighting in Kansas over whether the territory would enter the Union as a free or slave state. Now as Kansas celebrates its sesquicentennial, the region is promoting its ties to the era — the battlefields, the former haunts of fiery abolitionist John Brown and other scattered historic sites.

Visitors can stay at a hotel, The Eldridge, in the former abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence that stands on the site of one destroyed in 1856 and again in 1863 by pro-slavery forces. About 180 men and boys were killed by William Quantrill and his men in the second attack.

They can stop at the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka and see the tombstone for an anti-slavery settler killed in the territorial fighting. The man seems to speak from the grave, the tombstone reading, "I am willing to die for the cause of freedom in Kansas."

Christopher Phillips, who writes and lectures about the period, took students on field trips of some of his favorite sites during the seven years he taught at Emporia State University. His message to his students was that "ultimately the Civil War was more about the West than it was about either the North or the South because they are fighting about the future of their institution as the nation grows."

The fighting, as he explained to his students, broke out after Congress decided in 1854 to let settlers in the Kansas and Nebraska territories decide whether to allow slavery. Residents of the slave state of Missouri crossed into the neighboring Kansas Territory in droves to cast illegal votes for pro-slavery lawmakers. Anti-slavery Easterners sent settlers, money and weapons.

Visitors can still walk through the Shawnee Indian Mission in the Kansas City area where the pro-slavery territorial legislature met briefly and approved what anti-slavery activists dubbed the "bogus laws." They mandated prison times for crimes such as speaking out against slavery.

One of Phillips' first stops was Lecompton, where delegates to a constitutional convention approved a pro-slavery document that was narrowly rejected by Congress. Historians say the fighting over it helped divide the Democratic Party and pave the way for Abraham Lincoln's election.

Southern states were beginning to pull their statesmen from Washington when Kansas finally entered the Union as a free state on Jan. 29, 1861. Less than three months later, on April 12, 1861, Union and Confederate forces battled at Fort Sumter, in South Carolina, as the war officially began.

"To the people out here, the war had been going on for seven years," said Tim Rues, the site administrator of Constitution Hall in Lecompton, the simple, wood-frame building where the territorial legislators — first pro-slavery and briefly anti-slavery — met.

Phillips marvels that the building still stands; anti-slavery forces twice set out to burn it.

"It's this really distasteful part of Kansas' memory of itself," said Phillips, who now teaches at the University of Cincinnati. "At that moment, Kansas nearly went the other way, and those pro-slavery people did all they could to make it go the other way. And what would have happened had they done that at that moment? It's always been fascinating to me."

Because of the bitterness over what happened in Lecompton, Kansans moved the capital to Topeka. Most of Lecompton's 5,000 residents left, and a partially completed Statehouse was abandoned. The building that eventually was completed on its foundation was used first as a college and later a high school. Now, the town of about 600 operates it as a museum, using it to house items such as one of the desks used by the territorial lawmakers.

The Statehouse that replaced the one in Lecompton is another important site. Across from the governor's office, a John Steuart Curry mural depicts a larger-than-life John Brown standing with his arms outstretched, holding a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other. Phillips described the image as "a combination of Moses and Arnold Schwarzenegger" and tells his students that it represents how Kansans see Brown.
J. S. Curry's Famous Mural: "A Combination of Moses
and Arnold Scharwzenegger" (Kansas Travel)

Brown would cement himself in the history books when he led a failed slave revolt at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., in 1859. But he first made a name for himself in Kansas, and figured heavily in the fighting that occurred at some of the Kansas battlefields visitors still tour today.

Some consider the Battle of Black Jack, where a Brown-led militia fought against proslavery forces on June 2, 1856, the first clash of the Civil War. The pro-slavery militia surrendered to Brown before anyone died. But there were about a half-dozen deaths in August of that year when between 250 to 400 pro-slavery "border ruffians" killed one of Brown's sons, fought with Brown and about 40 other anti-slavery activists and then burned and looted the town of Osawatomie.

The site of the Osawatomie battle, a popular destination for Phillips' students, also is home to the log cabin where Brown sometimes stayed. Brown's former saddle and a hat given to Brown by the leader of the Ottawa Nation are among the items displayed in the cabin and the building that surrounds it.

Grady Atwater, the administrator of the site, said the hat has always struck him as an important remnant of Brown's belief that skin color didn't matter. He said Brown was friends with the American Indian leader and even stayed with him.

"The idea that John Brown was crazy came because he believed in the equality of African-Americans and whites at a time when most European-Americans thought they were subhuman," Atwater said.

He said he sometimes envisions Brown riding through the countryside on horseback as he drives through the region. So rich is the area's history that he said he could put a historic marker in nearly every yard.

Near Osawatomie is the site of the "Pottawatomie Massacre," where Brown oversaw the killing of five pro-slavery supporters in May of 1856 in retaliation for the first attack on Lawrence. Although the killings occurred on what today is private property, visitors can pull over near a bridge in the small town of Lane and look out over the area.

In a delayed act of retaliation, pro-slavery forces killed five anti-slavery settlers and wounded five others in the Marais des Cygne Massacre in May of 1858. Phillips said his students looked at the ravine where the killings happened, their mouths agape.

A final stop for Phillips' students was Fort Scott, where visitors can wander among reconstructed and renovated buildings that predate Kansas' statehood, including two that became competing hotels after the military abandoned the installation. One hotel served pro-slavery guests; the other served those opposed to slavery.

Phillips described the tour as transformative.  "Suddenly," he said, "'Bleeding Kansas' became more than just a slogan."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Spinning Secession-
Georgia on My Mind

Doug Walker, a writer for the News-Tribune in Rome, Georgia, yesterday marked the sesquicentennial of his state's secession from the union as follows:
A little more than a year after John Brown’s raid on a federal armory in West Virginia and three months before shots were fired at Fort Sumter, S.C., leaders of the state of Georgia saw the handwriting on the wall. It was Jan. 19, 1861, when lawmakers in Georgia adopted an ordinance dissolving the union between the state and the United States.*
Georgia's Secession Flag, 1860
The question for Mr. Walker is, "whose handwriting on the wall?" As the moderate, compromising candidate for presidency, Abraham Lincoln made it quite clear in his famous Cooper Union speech that the Harper's Ferry raid led by Brown signaled nothing of federal policy or Republican intention. John Brown's effort in Virginia was representative of militant abolition, not the federal government. So what "handwriting" were the leaders of Georgia observing on the political "wall" of the nation, except their own desperate and selfish scribbling? Walker's remark certainly implies justification of Southern secession--rebellion--against the federal government in 1861. But blaming John Brown's raid and then telescoping the Fort Sumter incident as "handwriting on the wall" is ludicrous, nor does it provide any real light as to why Georgia and the other Confederate states abandoned the Union.

Why can't romancers of Confederate secession come clean about their own history? First they tell us that the war was about "states rights," not slavery. Then they tell us that Lincoln started the war, and that it was a "war of northern aggression." Now they tell us that Georgia, on the vanguard of the Confederate rebellion, could "read the handwriting on the wall" in some sort of flash of great foresight. Foresight of what? The answer is that the only "handwriting on the wall" that Georgia and the other rebellious states could see was that which they projected in their own minds--particularly in the lustful determination of wealthy southern leaders to "eat their cake and have it too"--that is, to keep their chattel (as Lincoln and the Republicans would surely have granted) and to continue to pursue a policy of expanding slavery into new territories (which Lincoln and the Republicans would not have granted). The only real "handwriting on the wall" foreseen by the leaders of the militant slave states was that the future would not be kind to their imperial, expansionist slavocracy.  And for this reason, the wealthy Southern slave owners sent hundreds of thousands of their sons to their deaths in the name of patriotism.

Davis, Lee, and Jackson--
Stone Mountain, Ga. memorial
Unfortunately it seems still too early in our national narrative to expect Confederate romantics to stop peeing on history and telling us it's fresh country rain water. As long as the prideful denial concerning the systemic injustice of slavery persists in this nation overall, and as long as Southern "patriotism" entails loving the beautiful South but denying its historical shame, and as long as defenders of secession continue to blame the North (including John Brown) for "starting" the Civil War, we can expect nothing but more of the same kind of self-serving rhetoric.

Speaking of John Brown, the Old Man had no particular grudge with the South and Southerners, only with the so-called "peculiar institution." Had the heart of slavery been in Boston, Massachusetts, he would have as happily invaded the armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, in the hopes of assaulting that wicked system of oppression.  The point is not to defend Lincoln and all of his policies, or to demonize Southerners to the exclusion of blaming the entire nation for slavery (which, after all, was a U.S. institution, not just a Southern institution).  Nor am I suggesting Southerners simply need to "get over it."  But as far as Southern apologetics go, it's time for some integrity.  Own up or shut up.  Southern statecraft was mightily influential throughout the antebellum era.  Republicans did not enter the White House with the intention of emancipation or Southern repression, only the containment of slavery.  Lincoln was not pro-slavery, but he was most certainly a man of compromise, and would have kept blacks in slavery longer if it had suited his white brethren in the South sufficient to keep them in the Union.  There was no need for the Civil War as far as the politics of what Frederick Douglass called "the peculiar aristocracy" of this nation (i.e., white people's interests).

Of course, it took civil conflict to end slavery, which only proves the extent to which matters had to go before the agenda got "real."  Yet in retrospect, entering the sesquicentennial of the war, it seems we have largely forgotten the lessons of history.  Either people sentimentalize the war as if it were a bloody political football game between two equally noble and admirable teams (i.e., military history fascination, which often is bereft of any political interpretation); or they form in huddles of Confederate or Lincolnian romanticism; or they form a third huddle which bemoans the tremendous loss of life resulting from the Civil War, insinuating that it was unnecessary and might have played out differently had fanatics--Northern and Southern--not taken control.  None of this is reality, nor does it assist us toward getting to the truth of our nation's history.

As for Brown, if Southerners today are people of principle and character, they owe themselves the opportunity to intelligently revisit history and investigate this man, instead of feeding off of the biased myths of the past.  Here was a man with no sectional contempt, but one who hated the abuse of humanity.  Southern romancers are quick to cite the Pottawatomie incident, as if the people killed by Brown and his men in 1856 were typical of themselves--and if one thinks so, one had better look a little closer.

Sherman, Wilkinson, and the Doyles--the so-called "victims" of the Pottawatomie "massacre"--were either political terrorists or aids to malicious terrorists.  Brown lived in a neighborly fashion with Southern people in the Kansas territory prior to the terrorist assault on Lawrence in May 1856.  He made trips back and forth between the territory and Missouri to buy and trade; he conversed hopefully with Southern settlers who were neither pro-slavery nor pro-black, in the hopes of their attaining a correct vision of humanity; in Kansas territory, he never initiated aggression toward any Southerner purely on sectional or political basis; there is even some evidence that he reared his children to understand what today we would call the "psychology" and "sociology" of Southern people regarding slavery, so as not to demonize them apart from the rest of the [white] people of this nation.  Only when pro-slavery people became aggressive and conspiratorial did he take up arms.   Were Sherman, Wilkinson, and the Doyles from southern Ohio, he would have as quickly split their skulls because of their wicked designs against his family.  They were not killed because they were Southern, nor even because they were pro-slavery.  They were killed because they were actually mortal enemies with malicious and criminal intentions, and in the absence of any protection, killing them--in the midst of a de facto civil war--was a legitimate response on the part of Brown, his family, and associates.  As to old Virginia and Brown's invasion there, his best witnesses are the slave masters that he took captive, for their courtroom testimonies are harmonious in attesting to Brown's humane behavior toward them and his single-minded hostility toward slavery.

It is a shame that a segment of Southerners--then and now--continue to read the John Brown story as an inherently hateful, murderous anti-Southern narrative.  Yes, John Brown was an invader of the South, but the time would come when the South would prefer men of the caliber of Brown and his raiders to the myriad federal troops that came thereafter, many of them with malicious intent.  It was not Brown who burned Southern cities, tore up Southern infrastructure, and decimated Southern land.  Indeed, John Brown was perhaps the last opportunity for the South to be freed from its own stubborn wickedness by a minimalist program of "violence."  Since academics are so enamored with counterfactual history in disdaining the Civil War, let me try my hand at it: What if John Brown had not wasted so much time catering to the whimpering slave masters in the Harper's Ferry engine house?What if he had gotten himself, his men, and his growing circle of liberated black enlistees out of town and up into the mountains before any militia could arrive?  Whatever else might have happened, there is a good chance that there may not have been a Civil War as we know it, at least not at the cost of 600,000 lives.

Regardless, let John Brown have the last word in commemoration of Georgia's secession from the Union:
. . . all you people of the South -- prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question. You may dispose of me very easily -- I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled -- this negro question I mean; the end of that is not yet.
Here was the real "handwriting on the wall" of history.  But I doubt anyone in Georgia had paused to read it before rushing down the suicidal trail of secession 150 years ago yesterday.

*Doug Walker, "Georgia seceded 150 years ago today." Rome News-Tribune on line [Rome, Ga.], Jan. 19, 2011

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Former West Virginia Mayor Calls for a Two-State Pardon for John Brown

The Huntingtonnews.com, the website of the same named newspaper in Huntington, West Virginia, currently features an op-ed by Craig Hammond, former mayor of Bluefield, West Virginia, a leading Republican state figure, and the host of a talk show that is broadcast in Virginia on radio stations WHIS (Bluefield) and WTZE (Tazewell).

In his op-ed, Hammond points out that last year’s sesquicentennial of the Harper’s Ferry raid had created “a wide swath of Americans who are intrigued by Brown, his mission, and his significance in American history.” Indeed, Hammond concludes that there is a “new appreciation growing for Brown's ideals, if not his precise approach towards achieving them.” Hammond speaks of the opportunity likewise afforded us “to understand Brown,” and he asks how “a devoted Christian and family man could arrive at a point in his life when he wanted to arm the slaves of the south, enabling them to escape to freedom in the Appalachian Mountains?” He also leaves open the question as to  whether Brown really was serious in his later claim that it was not his intention to launch a movement that resulted in the “mass killings of white southern citizens.”

Brown an "Idealist"

Hammond briefly sketches Brown as an idealist, a man driven by such convictions as to pursue the course of abolitionism, working the underground railroad, finally liberating enslaved people at gunpoint in Missouri and escorting them hundreds of miles across country and into Canadian freedom. “That's commitment,” Hammond says, “and this commitment to his ideals made him look for peaceful means to achieve his abolitionist goals. Yet over the passing of years, Brown saw there was “no progress made by the U.S. government on the issue of slavery.” Hammond points out that antebellum presidents like Pierce and Buchanan actually “bent over backwards to give southern slaveholders anything they wanted.”

Pardon Him

Hammond holds on to some neutrality, at least in his conclusion that one may not want to agree with Brown’s use of armed force, just as he suggests one may not believe that Brown’s agenda purely entailed self-defense for his men and his liberated enlistees. “But he did draw up a provisional constitution for the new free slave area in the mountains, and his treatment of his captives at Harpers Ferry suggests that he wasn't bloodthirsty,” Hammond concludes.

Governor Henry Wise led
Virginia's Effort to Execute John Brown 
For these reasons,” Hammond further states, John Brown “should be pardoned posthumously by Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Governor Earl Ray Tomblin of West Virginia.” Not only would Brown’s trial have failed to “pass muster as a fair trial today,” he concludes, but also “we should at least honor his vision of an America where all human beings are free.” Citing Frederick Douglass’ laudatory remarks regarding Brown’s contributions to the freedom struggle, Hammond finally opines that such posthumous pardons from Virginia and West Virginia “would be a good way to begin observing Black History Month in the two Virginias.”

Yes, But . . .

Should Virginia's Present Governor
Bob McDonnell pardon Brown?
Hammond’s remarks are both notable and commendable. But I still have serious reservations about calling for a posthumous pardon. Yet I must admit that a pardon from the State of Virginia strikes a certain chord of validity, more than did last year’s well-meaning appeal for a presidential pardon for John Brown. It remains my conviction that the essential force and meaning inherent in the deaths of prophets and martyrs is bound up with their condemnation though innocent, as well as their rightness over against the wrongness of their more powerful executioners.  It is one thing for African American organizations, for example, to honor John Brown, since their basis for formation and evaluation is in struggle against the status quo of racism. When Brown is honored by the people of Haiti, or remembered warmly by revolutionary leaders abroad, there is a sensibility and consistency in such salutation. But the idea that governments, whether federal or state, would issue a posthumous pardon to John Brown without having ever officially issued a reparatory apology to the black population of this country strikes me as missing the point of his death, the meaning of his contribution to the struggle for justice, and the true manner in which he made his “gallows glorious like the cross,” in the words of Emerson.

On the Other Hand. . .

On the other hand, no single figure in the history of the United States is more hated, misrepresented, and maligned than John Brown. No traitor to this nation, from Benedict Arnold to Robert E. Lee, is more disdained in popular culture and academic reflection than John Brown. Time and time again, we see that every violent white cuckoo that rears his ugly head in this nation is invariably compared to Brown, now considered by many as the template of “American terrorism” and mental illness among political fanatics. Many people are so steeped in this dysfunctional reading of Brown that they presume the worst diagnosis even from looking at his picture. Despite the real history of the man and his solid contribution to human rights struggle, there is a large number of popularly oriented whites (and a few people of color too) who would more likely class John Brown with the likes of assassin John Wilkes Booth, or terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Osama bin Ladin, than even with glorified, stylized “American heroes” like Jesse James (who was actually a racist thug and a criminal).

In this light, then, should I reconsider my view of a posthumous pardon, particularly if it comes from the State of Virginia?  One thing for sure, West Virginia need not issue such a pardon, even though the site of Brown’s raid, imprisonment, and execution were subsequently subsumed within its state borders when President Lincoln authorized the creation of West Virginia in 1863. John Brown was not hanged by West Virginia but by the Old Dominion and its pro-slavery leaders. So if there is any efficacy in a posthumous pardon, the onus is upon Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia, the same governor who recently proposed some sort of Confederate history remembrance.

Still, John Brown’s legacy is its own reward to those who study his life and uphold his legacy.  We who study and salute him in our lives and work do not lean upon such a weak reed as to hope for a posthumous pardon. Naturally we hope that a greater degree of knowledge and sensitivity will prevail in matters of racial justice, since an increase in such light and vision will inevitably bring a broader, happier, and truer assessment of John Brown in popular culture and historical narratives. Nevertheless, we applaud Mr. Hammond’s courage and thoughtfulness.

The Old Man himself once acknowledged that it was “an invariable rule” for him “not to do anything while I do not know what to do.” Perhaps this rule would best serve publishing any opinion regarding the question at hand. We will neither support nor oppose Mr. Hammond’s noble declaration. History will answer him soon enough.

To read further, see Craig Hammond, “Commentary: It's Time for a John Brown Pardon.” Huntingtonnews.net (18 January 2011)

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Osawatomie Notebook--
Mary Brown in California

Mary Day Brown settled in Red Bluff, Calif., in 1864 following a harrowing journey from North Elba, N.Y., during which her family was threatened with death by Confederate sympathizers. She settled in Red Bluff hoping to find peace and quiet. John Brown’s supporters in Red Bluff discovered that his widow was living in poverty in their community, and they organized an effort to provide for her.

During the winter of 1864-65, John Brown’s supporters in California rallied to help Mary Day Brown and her family by donating clothing and furniture to alleviate their poverty. A formal organization, The John Brown Cottage Fund, was formed to help her by building a new home in Red Bluff. John Brown’s supporters from all over California rallied to build it.

Mary Day Brown moved into the new home at the end of 1866 and worked as a nurse and a midwife. She was an advocate for the temperance movement in Red Bluff and was a caring nurse who helped many families. However dynamic her contributions to those in need in Red Bluff, she was always primarily known for being John Brown’s widow.

The immutable controversy that surrounds John Brown invaded her peaceful life in Red Bluff, though, and Abe Townsend of the Red Bluff Sentinel began attacking the Brown family in editorials in 1870. Mary Day Brown and her family were once again under attack. The Brown’s left Red Bluff for Rohnerville, Calif., in 1870, and she resumed her career as a nurse and midwife.

After living in Rhonerville for eleven years, she moved to Saratoga, Calif., in 1881 for health reasons. In Saratoga, Confederate sympathizers began attacking the Brown family. John Brown’s supporters then came to her defense and helped to pay for her land and home in Saratoga. Confederate sympathizers soon found that they were in the minority in Saratoga and John Brown’s supporters from all points of the compass began visiting Mary Day Brown as a pilgrimage.

She lived in Saratoga until her death of cancer on Feb. 29, 1884. She was, and is, forever identified as “John Brown’s widow.” However, Mary Day Brown was a dedicated abolitionist and a strong woman in her own right. The contribution of women to their husband’s endeavors is often underestimated, and Mary Day Brown’s role in John Brown’s abolitionist crusade is no exception.

Her faith and support for his abolitionist crusade helped to give him the strength to work to abolish slavery. In addition, she was a strong mother and cared for John Brown’s family while he was away from home, freeing him to engage in his crusade. Mary Day Brown deserves respect and admiration for her role in the abolition of slavery in the United States.

  Grady Atwater is the John Brown State Historic Site Administrator

Friday, January 07, 2011

Pimp My Hero--

Yesterday I was rushing to work, about to go and catch the C Train at Frederick Douglass Circle (at the northwest corner of Central Park) and happened to glance over at the statue of Frederick Douglass, whose memorial I have previously featured on this blog (June 21, 2010).  I noticed that he was clad in long black cape, and at first I thought it was some kind of grassroots tribute from an admirer in the area.  Then I realized there was some kind of structure next to the statue with writing on it.  When I crossed the street and approached the memorial and statue, I was quite shocked to find that the cape was placed there—undoubtedly with the permission of New York City government—by NBC television, and that it was a promotional effort to plug their forthcoming hero fiction, “The Cape.”

I took these hurried pictures that I have posted here so that my readers and others can see it—what certainly must be the most opportunistic and shabby effort I’ve ever seen done to the disadvantage of a historical memorial under the category of legality.  First of all, the person at NBC who thought of this should be reprimanded, and the corresponding official of New York City government likewise should be demoted for allowing this kind of tacky display being made at the expense of the Douglass memorial, even if the City needs the money that NBC probably paid them for this irreverent advertisement.

This is a partial shot of the top of the display box placed on the site by NBC.  This image
 does not show the tribute to Douglass preceding "The Cape" Advertisement, but here 
we have Douglass's legacy blended with a fictional TV character--and this is a tribute?
If Mayor Bloomberg knows about this, then he should apologize, not only to the African American community, whom Douglass first represents, but to all citizens who value the heroic struggle for human rights and the exceptional role that Douglass played in the long process of civilizing this racist society.  I’m afraid that the late Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, was more than correct in his assessment that television has reshaped our nation into a society based upon entertainment.  When NBC can promote a silly new TV program about a caped crime fighter upon the historical shoulders of one of the greatest figures in our nation’s history, it’s time to unplug.  Notwithstanding the black cape on the Douglass statue itself looks nice in a wintery scene, its function in advancing NBC’s race for ratings and profit is outrageous.


It's worse than I feared.  New York City Parks and Recreation have pimped out about thirty statutes in the city for NBC's "The Cape" promotion.  This report is found on the website, TV by the Numbers:

Ms Tubman too

UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. – January 5, 2011 – NBC will introduce a new superhero this month with the premiere of the drama series “The Cape,” and in anticipation of the show’s two-hour premiere on Sunday, January 9 (9-11 p.m. ET), NBC will partner with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation for a unique campaign to highlight historic statues all over the city.
“The Cape” will later move to its regular time slot on Mondays (9-10 p.m. ET) starting January 17.
Beginning Wednesday, January 5 through Sunday, January 9, 30 of New York City’s historic statues will be outfitted with custom capes along with a plaque describing each hero’s greatest achievement and the similarities between the character traits of the star of “The Cape” Vince Faraday (David Lyons).
The statues range from a Revolutionary War hero who was the nation’s first President, to the leader in the fight for Cuban independence and to the world’s greatest playwright, New York City is home to a plethora of monuments and statues that pay homage to many great heroes.
Statue visitors will also be able to enter the “Hero Behind the Cape” giveaway contest using FourSquare and Twitter.
As John Brown would say, "So we go."

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

John Brown Memorial in Perkins Park area of Akron Zoo, 500 Edgewood Ave, Akron, Ohio

"This is a memorial to the famed abolitionist, John Brown – an Akron resident in the 1840s. The area is not far from Brown's former home, on Diagonal Road, where he lived and raised sheep for Col. Simon Perkins, of Akron's founding family.

The German-American Alliance erected the pillar in 1910 on land that would later become Perkins Woods Park. The memorial's centerpiece is a 20-foot sandstone column salvaged from the portico of the original Summit County Courthouse that was razed in 1905. Long gone is the bronze eagle that perched on the sphere that sits atop the pillar.

In 1938, a group called the Negro 25 Year Club added a 30-foot-diameter stone bench surrounding the pillar, a paved flagstone interior and a 6-foot high stone slab with a medallion bearing the likeness of Brown, by local artist Stephen Gladwin. The marker declares, 'He died to set his brothers free. His soul goes marching on.'

The memorial was restored and rededicated in 1975 – Akron’s sesquicentennial year. Since then, the adjacent Akron Zoo has expanded and incorporated the memorial within its boundary. This part of the zoo is undeveloped and wooded – no indication is made of the memorial’s existence."
Historical Tidbit--
An 1858 Arkansas Insurrection?  And a Dig from the St. Louis News

Before I run off to teach my class, I thought I'd share this little tidbit taken from the New York Times, February 2, 1858, which relays reports about a possible slave insurrection in Arkansas, relayed to the Times from Chicago, including a report from the St. Louis News.  I will leave it up to the historians to follow up on the report itself--that is, to what extent this reported black liberation movement actually took place, or if it reflects the paranoia of "the slave power."   What is both interesting and amusing, however, is the News journalist's little dig that the individual making the report from Arkansas was named John Brown, "whose credibility is not increased by the fact" that he shared the same name of our man Brown. This was early 1858, and the abolitionist John Brown was back in Ohio at the time the Arkansas JB made his report, but the passing remark demonstrates the dent that Brown had already made on pro-slavery folks as a result of his guerilla activities.  Of course, Brown was plotting his own grand effort to "carry the war into Africa" at this time, but it should not surprise to know that others had made efforts to overthrow slave masters throughout the antebellum era, although many of these efforts were suppressed in the news.  It would not be so easy to suppress news of the Harper's Ferry raid, however, so the "slave power" had no choice but to tweak it the best that they could--most notably by saying that enslaved people did not support his effort in Virginia.  But we know better today.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The Heroism of Robert E. Lee and Other Myths

From the time of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address to the present day, the manifest courtesy that white supremacy in the United States has offered to the so-called Confederacy is without precedent in history.  Most nations that have undergone civil wars would have no concept of putting their defeated foes on a pedestal of fraternal tolerance, if not almost worshipful adoration.  No government, having fought and bled profusely in order to sustain its power would soon thereafter embrace its former enemies with “political” sentimentality and allow the restoration of land and fortune to them--even to the point of permitting them to rehabilitate the former banner of rebellion as a state banner.  

To put it otherwise, only a nation with a "higher" agenda than republican virtue would be willing to lionize its worst traitors and canonize their treacherous agenda in a kind of sentimental, apolitical patriotic understanding of history.  When Lincoln gave his famous speech, declaring “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” what did he mean?  Was he primarily thinking of enslaved Africans numbering in the millions, or primarily declaring the nature of his policy toward the defeated rebels of the South?  In fact, wasn't Lincoln trumpeting a message to the South, namely that he would not punish them—that there would be no treason trials and executions; that there would be no harsh reprisals; and there would be no paying-the piper for their perfidy?  All would be welcomed back into the fold, the fold of white priorities.

I did not grow up believing this, but it is hard to read our nation's history without coming to this very conclusion.  Like it or not, this is a real factor of U.S. history.  Frederick Douglass saw this clearly in Abraham Lincoln, whom he considered a noble soul albeit a whites-first leader.  Yet if Lincoln’s priorities were first and foremost for white people, how much less noble were the masses of Southern and Northern leaders of that era, many of whom were standard white supremacists, if not mean-spirited racists who disdained non-whites as inferior beings? And if Lincoln was a whites-first leader as Douglass once declared, what should we think of "noble" men like Robert E. Lee?

Thumbnail History

Although it may seem unkind to say, the tragic assassination of Lincoln in 1865 perhaps had one up-side: it was part of a chain of events that led to rise of “Radical” or “Black” Republicans—a powerful group of leaders who actually were more like John Brown than Abraham Lincoln, who not only wanted to treat the defeated rebels as traitors, but who wanted to secure and guarantee black freedom in the post-war era.  It was due to these “Radicals” that white supremacy was forced into something of a holiday (although never completely) in the decade following the Civil War.  Under the leadership of these "Radicals," the South remained occupied by federal troops, ensuring that blacks were actually given equal opportunity to establish businesses, participate in the democratic process, and begin to lay the foundation of their own community’s development.  Thanks to the “Radical” Republicans, post-war blacks established banks, businesses, and schools even as they entered positions of local and state leadership in the former slave states.  For a brief season, this nation actually tried to live up to its claims as a free and democratic society.

However, Reconstruction was soon deconstructed as the reunified nation regained “stability” and white priority arose from its political sickbed.  Indeed, as the political genes of this nation kicked in once more, the Republican Party began to shift away from "black concerns," toward a nation-building agenda that obviously entailed the priorities of white society, North and South.  Although some former Confederates had fought the government’s policies after the war, the post-Radical Republicans in the North were willing to give the reins of power back to the Southern white community, remove federal troops from the South, and essentially put aside the bad feelings of the Civil War at the expense of the black community.  Thus arose white supremacist terrorists, especially the original KKK and other armed-and-deadly groups comprised of former rebel soldiers.  These white supremacists--the original American terrorists--unleashed a deadly assault upon the vulnerable and defenseless black community in the South.  As a result, blacks fled westward in a mass "exodus," a nightmare scenario that only got worse through the end of the 19th century, and well into the 20th century.  Lynching became the sport of white supremacy in the South while a largely indifferent North looked on.  It took the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century to finally address the most obvious legal and political aspects of the emboldened legacy of post-Reconstruction terrorism dating back to the mid-19th century.

The Sentimental "History" of the South

I have made this thumbnail foray into 19th century U.S. history mainly to point out that along with the realpolitik of white supremacy in this country, the writing of history and portrayal of the same in our media has long reflected the same benevolent embrace of the traitorous so-called Confederate States of America.  Professional historians, journalists and novelists, and even screenplay writers all contributed to the romance of the South, the sentimentalizing of the plantation, the caricaturing of blacks as stupid simpletons, and the heroic representation of men like Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.   All of this took place because white society was first and foremost interested in its own “family” agenda, something clearly expressed in Lincoln’s political sentiments and agenda.  To be sure, most whites entered the Civil War with no primary concern for the plight of black people.  That white society had to deal with black enslavement was a consequence of history (as John Brown saw in advance), although for most whites, the debate was about how it impacted whites and how whites believed slavery would be best managed.  Northern whites wanted free labor and despised black free laborers, just as they bemoaned the possibility of any black presence in their states.  Southern whites wanted black slave labor and wanted to expand it to new regions; southern leaders believed that the expansion of black chattel slavery was essential to their survival as a “people,” and they were willing to destroy the Union if deprived of that right to expand.  This is why the Civil War took place, and anyone who tries to blur the point by raising “states’ rights,” etc. is just running a con game of self-delusion.

I have not conducted a formal study, but I would confidently assert, for instance, that most of the movies made about the Civil War in Hollywood have romanticized the South and lionized rebel life and culture.  Throughout the 20th century, film and fiction, along with major historians, “resolved” the bloody history of the Civil War with a mythical resolution of (white) North-South sentimentality that celebrated the war as a patriotic epic—without acknowledging the visceral racism and white supremacist politics that actually shaped it.   Meanwhile, neo-Confederates (especially the evangelical Southern neo-secessionists who blend Reformed orthodoxy with their brand of “benign” Confederate romanticism) and their apologists continue to argue that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery or racism, that it was about the North’s aggressive, invasive policies, States’ Rights, and the pitting of two economic/spiritual orders against one another.  In the theatrics of such a dramatic myth, men like Robert E. Lee are canonized as saintly Christian reformers fighting the good fight, and John Brown is castigated as an apostate and murderer in cahoots with godless Northern liberals. It remains to be seen whether our nation will ever “get real” about the history of chattel slavery and the Civil War, and quit treating the latter as if it was little more than a deadly “blue vs. gray” football game.  Far too many people are spiritually, socially, and politically sold on the idea that slavery was a grandiose inconvenience at worst, and that their slave holding forebears were well-meaning people whose legacy should not be burdened with the hard realities of chattel slavery as a system of racism, violence, and theft of labor.  

Robert E. Lee and His Defenders

While I am used to complaining about how PBS and other television programs tend to portray John Brown, for once I am relieved to hear that a program to be broadcast this evening about Robert E. Lee has somewhat turned the table on Confederate romanticism.  According to Michael Hoffman ["In Defense of Robert E. Lee," Jan. 2, 2011, On the Contrary website], an outraged apologist of Robert E. Lee, the “American Experience” is going to portray Lee as a valorous but errant racist.  Quoting an article by Michael Fellman in the Washington Post (Jan. 1), Hoffman whines:
The film summons forth a smattering of endowed-chair academics and other history professors - Civil War experts all - to explain how Lee backed the wrong side for the wrong reasons. In short, he was a slavery apologist who let his own Old Dominion snobbery and sense of honor lead him to a righteous path of war. "He certainly never questioned the values of his class," history professor Michael Fellman observes. "He would talk about 'my people'...the white people of his social class, born to rule. His honor is involved in the defense of his 'people.'"
Hoffman follows this rant with a feeble attempt to justify Lee, for instance by calling John Brown a terrorist and pointing out that abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison despised the U.S. Constitution, and making the feeble point of how lowly the Irish were held in the era of slavery—as if any of this (true or not) negates the basic point that (1) Robert E. Lee chose to defend and support a white supremacist regime; (2) Robert E. Lee was a slave holder himself; and (3) Robert E. Lee was a traitor to his nation and lent his skills and genius toward making the war far worse despite  the moral bankruptcy and real economic limitations of the so-called Confederacy. 

Hoffman particularly despises a writer named Alan Kurtz for calling Lee “America’s Greatest Traitor” on a blog entitled Technorati, in which Kurtz reviews the January 3rd PBS broadcast. Hoffman’s arguments against Kurtz tend to be distracting and shallow due to his alternate agenda of attacking Orthodox Judaism. But even so, Hoffman cannot help but argue the same tired lines of most neo-Confederates and romanticizers of the South:
The "They were traitors!” cry at the Confederacy contains an irony: King George III issued a similar slander against the secessionist Founders of our nation. British monarchist Samuel Johnson nullified the whole basis of the American Revolution, by sneering at the patriots as “drivers of negroes” (he had nothing opprobrious to say, however, about the “drivers” of child miners, chimney sweeps and other desperately penurious, virtually enslaved white youth in his native Britain).
But Hoffman’s whines just don’t answer the point.  The founders of this nation, though rebels, were not collaborative equals in the British empire.  Right or wrong, they were colonists who wanted independence to pursue their own agenda.  Although they betrayed the King of England, they did not do so in the same way that the South betrayed the Union.  When the Southern rebellion began, Southern leadership was seated in high places of government.  Both the law and the courts had upheld pro-slavery interests for a decade prior to the rebellion, and Lincoln had no intention of abolishing slavery in 1860.  Whether or not the British colonies of North America were biblically correct in rebelling against England is not a point I wish to engage at this point.  As a Christian, John Brown evidently believed the rebellion was theologically justifiable; I have my doubts.  But I do not doubt that it is completely wrong to compare the Southern rebellion with the colonial rebellion of 1776 as Hoffman does in trying to defend Lee.

Robert E. Lee the Worst of Traitors

To the contrary, Kurtz is right on.  He points out that among the ten worst battles of the Civil War, Lee led rebel forces in six, resulting in nearly 200,000 deaths.  Lee was a criminal by law, according to the Article III, Sec. 3 of the Constitution in regard to treason.  As Kurtz says, Lee does not stand in the company of “great” men, but in the camp of Benedict Arnold and other traitors.  Yet “the court of public opinion” has consistently ruled in favor of Robert E. Lee.   Lee was restored to citizenship after betraying his nation and never stood trial despite levying war against the U.S., “adhering to its enemies, [and] giving them aid and comfort,” writes Kurtz.
So how do we remember Robert E. Lee? Amazingly, instead of reviling his memory, we revere it. His one-time home, a Greek revival style mansion overlooking the Potomac, directly across from the National Mall in our nation's capital, surrounded by Arlington National Cemetery, has been designated as a National Memorial, and is operated by the National Park Service. Notice how many times the word "national" appears in that sentence! Robert E. Lee did more than anyone else to tear this nation apart, yet we honor him as a national hero. 

The Unkindest Cut

Students and admirers of John Brown find this reality the unkindest cut of all.  It is bad enough that too many people in this nation have been mis-educated into thinking that Brown was a sinister, mad, or ruthless terrorist, when in reality he was one of a few of the most humanitarian and freedom-loving men of his era.  But worse is that racists and traitors are pictured on our greenbacks or revered as heroic men of the nation, determinedly woven into the fabric of what "America" means to many people in this country.

But what kind of a nation so easily forgives racists and slave holders--to the point of emblazoning their images and romanticizing their treachery, and even allowing the flag of their betrayal to fly over some of the former “Confederate” states?  What kind of a nation hates and despises abolitionists and freedom fighters whose vision for the nation was truly for freedom and justice for all?

The answer is self-evident.  It is the nation in which we live, the nation handed down to us by our predecessors.

The last question, however, is whether, in the 21st century, we are willing to begin to tell the truth about our history and its leading figures.  Are we going to continue to celebrate Robert E. Lee and dismiss John Brown to the margins of national contempt?  The answer will be significant, to say the least.